The following continues the new serialized tale from Ari Marmell—author of Agents of Artifice. Be sure to check back each week for the next chapter in this ongoing tale of Ravenloft!
While the majority of the details portrayed over the course of Chapters One through Three are purely fictionalized, the background circumstances are, alas, entirely factual.
On July 15, 1099, the "pilgrims" of the First Crusade—led by, among others, the Duke Godefroy de Bouillon of France—collapsed portions of the defensive walls of Jerusalem, putting an end to the siege of the city. The next twenty-four hours were among the bloodiest in the history of the Crusades, as seemingly-maddened knights and soldiers slaughtered an enormous portion of the Holy City’s population: Muslims, Jews, and even some Christians; men, women, and children. Nobody was spared the violence and anger of the crusaders; and while historical accounts claiming the soldiers waded in blood up to their ankles are almost certainly exaggerations, they still represent a chilling view of what happened that day.
This is not fiction, much as we might wish it were. This is history.
And if there are Dark Powers, scouring the many worlds for those "worthy" of their embrace, surely such horrors committed in the name of God would be exactly what they sought.
He had to wait for evening before he might begin his efforts, for he could not possibly sneak by the guards and into the reeve's home during daylight. So Lambrecht waited, impatient to be about his business, and reviewed the rites and incantations over and again. In this, above all else, he could afford no error.
In late afternoon, the cold winds picked up once more, howling from the mountains with bitter fury. Throughout Firalene Down, people wrapped their cloaks and their coats tightly about them and hurried to be done with what business they had lingering. The snows remained high in the mountains, as they usually did even in the heart of winter, but an icy rain began to fall, ensuring that even the heaviest of clothes would not suffice to keep a traveler warm.
At the base of the hills, where the mountain streams collected and set off in new directions, the mists rose. Steadily they drifted outward, creeping along the streets of Firalene Down, just another tired traveler. They seemed abnormally heavy, collecting within a few feet of the earth, so that a man could see where he was going well enough, but not where he might step along the way. The wise of the town shook their heads in befuddlement, for the fog was a rare sight indeed in this sort of weather, at this time of year. And then, after commenting on that fact to remind their friends and family how wise they were, they put it from their minds and made ready for dinner.
In an alley near the reeve's home, Lambrecht stood in the shadows, repeating a simple incantation under his breath. He reached out with both hands, and the mists rose up to meet them. They curled about his fingers, curious, even friendly—not unlike a favored pet. The priest increased the speed of recitation and crossed his arms over his chest. The mists rose and embraced him in a cocoon of shifting whites and grays. Crouching, he vanished into the haze that sat low in the winding streets.
Even had the guards been trained watchmen, rather than conscripted laborers, they would never have seen Lambrecht as he slipped by them, just another whirl amid the fog. The house smelled of blood and sweat, with just a hint of animal musk. Lambrecht stood in the sitting room and shook his head at the splashes of dried blood that marred the kitchen, and trickled down the steps leading to the second floor. Such a waste—and it might all have been avoided had Father Marten possessed the courage to stand up to the evil in his midst.
Well, Lambrecht would just have to do it for him.
Safely inside, he ceased his repetition of the charm, allowing the clinging vapors to dissipate into the ether. For several moments he wandered the house, one sleeve held to his nose to muffle the worst of the stench, until he found himself in the master bedroom upstairs. Here, where the blood was thickest, the buzzing flies had gathered in droves for a final feast before the winter grew too much for them. The mattress was shredded, and not only blood but tiny strips of flesh lay embedded within. This was the center of the attack, the place of greatest violence, the heart of the magic.
Almost reverently, Lambrecht slid from his pouch the chicken's foot he had taken from the cave above, where the witch had worked his malevolent craft. Although he trusted his memory, he removed as well the pages of the Grimoire and read over the incantation once more, just to be sure. Wincing in anticipation, he ran his fingers through the drying blood, until they were caked with rust-hued flakes. He dabbed them next upon his tongue, swallowing hard against a surge of nausea. With the taste of the blood fresh in his mouth, Lambrecht began the new incantation, pausing after its first recitation only long enough to spit upon the chicken foot he clasped in his right hand.
Even as he chanted again, the talons flexed of their own accord, creaking and cracking in the silent room. Two curled inward, while the last pointed slightly to Lambrecht's left. Still reciting, he moved about the perimeter of the room, watching as the extended digit changed direction. As sure as any compass, it pointed continuously in a single direction. Smiling around the words of the litany, Lambrecht completed it twice more. Sliding the chicken's foot up into his sleeve, he turned and strode purposefully toward the front door.
"Hey, who's that now?" The guards converged upon him as he pushed open the door, their cries attracting the attention of those passersby remaining in the cold and darkening streets. Lambrecht smiled beatifically and allowed them to congregate around him.
"I know him," one of the women on the street called out. "He's the fellow who interrupted Father Marten at morning mass!"
"Is that so?" the guard asked. "I've heard about you, sir. We're going to have to take you in."
"You could do that," Lambrecht said reasonably, "although I'm not entirely certain to whom you're supposed to report, what with Reeve Jesmond having passed on. But if you do so, you'll have to explain to your superiors how I walked past you into the house."
The men exchanged nervous glances.
"Or," Lambrecht continued, raising his voice so all on the street could hear, "you can follow me, and I shall lead you to the true source of the ill fortune that's troubled your town for months."
"He was saying something about that in church," another passerby commented. "You said that it was witchcraft that afflicted us, not a haunting."
"Indeed I did."
"Father Marten disagrees. Why should we heed a stranger over him?"
Lambrecht raised his hands in supplication. "What harm in allowing me to try? If I'm truly in error, you'll all be with me, to ensure I answer for my mistakes. And if I'm not, you can end your nightmare tonight."
In the end they acquiesced, as Lambrecht had known they would. Curiosity, if nothing else, would permit them nothing less. Accompanied by one of the house guards and a steadily growing throng of citizens, whispers flying among them, he marched along the winding road. At every crossroad he ran a finger across the talon, concealed within his sleeve, to determine which way to turn. It was enough, for now, that the people were starting to believe he could locate and confront the source of their woes. He doubted they were prepared to accept the means by which he did so.
Eventually, as the crowd behind him grew to over three dozen, the chicken's foot led him to the door of a modest house, at the very border between the old and new portions of Firalene Down. A garden, overgrown and long untended, ran around three sides of the building, and many of the shutters were in obvious need of repair. Smoke rose from the chimney, so the house was clearly occupied. It simply seemed that the occupant had lost all interest in maintaining the property.
Listening to the mutters of the throng behind him as they recognized the house, Lambrecht already knew who would come to the door. He could not help but smile; it was so blatantly obvious, once one ceased clinging to the foolish belief that the town was haunted.
A moment after his knock, the door opened a crack, revealing little more than gray hair and a bushy gray beard, surrounding a pair of squinting, suspicious eyes.
"What do you want?"
Lambrecht bowed his head in greeting. "A good evening to you, sir. I presume I have the honor of addressing Master Lassiter?"
Humphrey Lassiter's father scowled. "You know damned well who I am. Everyone in this miserable town does."
"Indeed, but I am not from this 'miserable town.' Tell me, Master Lassiter, do you find this house comfortable, or do you prefer your cave in the mountains?"
The old man tried to slam the door, but Lambrecht simply raised a boot and kicked. Leg muscles accustomed to years of marching easily overpowered the small man pushing from the other side, and Lassiter fell sprawling to the floor. Without so much as a downward glance, Lambrecht strode by him, eyes darting about the room.
It was a combination kitchen and dining nook, filthy and heaped with the refuse of half-eaten meals, but otherwise unremarkable. That was fine; he hadn't expected the trappings of witchcraft to stand in plain sight. He rubbed gently at the chicken's foot, and nodded once.
"Would you be so kind," he asked, turning to one of the largest men in the crowd, "as to move the cauldron aside?"
"No!" Lassiter called out. "You've no right to be in my home! Get out!" But already the citizens were caught up in Lambrecht's enthusiasm, his certainty.
The cauldron swung aside with ease, revealing a metal grate partly obscured by the firewood beneath. The man who had moved it reached in and removed a handful of humanoid dolls replete with real human hair, a trio of blood-red candles, and a wolf's fang. It was more than enough. Angrily the crowd seized upon the screaming old man, and it was only Lambrecht's cries for calm that prevented them from beating him to death then and there.
"Let us do things the proper way, as they should have been done all along," the priest requested. "Take him to your authorities, along with the evidence you've found here. It ought to be enough to put him in the ground beside his son."
With a murmur of acquiescence, the crowd began to drag Lassiter from his house. Lambrecht lowered his head and folded his hands, muttering under his breath. To the awed citizens around him, he seemed lost in prayer.
Soon, he thought to himself, mouthing the eldritch words. Soon….
With a cry of rage, Lassiter tore a hand loose and pointed a trembling finger at Lambrecht. His shouts were incoherent, but the priest knew a malediction when he heard one. Whatever had granted Lassiter the power to wreak his vengeance, he was calling upon it again.
Though it flashed through the room unseen, every man and woman present felt the power of the curse wash over them to swirl about the stranger who had saved them. And as it struck, they felt it burst, its power fading into nothingness as though it had never been. Lambrecht smiled, keeping his eyes downcast, and continued to recite the protective charm as the crowd pummeled Lassiter into silence, shoving a filthy rag in his mouth to serve as a gag. Then, and only then, did Lambrecht look up.
"You see, my friends? Against a man who knows his enemy, a man of faith, a man of knowledge, even the witch has no power."
And that smile continued, growing ever broader, as the crowd whisked him along Firalene Down's winding roads, declaring Father Lambrecht, priest from lands afar, their new savior.
They arrived at the church just before midnight, but it might as well have been mid-afternoon for the size of the crowds in the streets. The tale of Lambrecht's triumph raced ahead of them like an excited dog, and like all such tales, it grew in the telling. Many who joined the procession late were convinced that the priest had walked unharmed through a thicket of poisonous thorns and a torrent of hellish fire only to subdue the witch with the power of his faith alone. Even folk who didn't entirely believe the stories were only too happy to leave their beds, to move abroad in the drab and chilly nights, thrilled beyond measure at the hope that the darkness plaguing their town had finally been banished.
And Lambrecht basked in their adoration, his soul swelling with pride and purpose. This was how it was meant to be! Finally he had found a people willing to accept his guidance, to open their eyes to the truth that in order to fight witchcraft, one must understand it, bend it to one's own purpose! It was a tool, like any other, ungodly and evil only in how it was used, not by its very nature.
Oh, he would take his time. No need to tell the good souls of Firalene Down that it was magic, not mere faith, that had sustained him this night. Let them grow accustomed to him first, to thinking of him as wise and benevolent. Let them come to depend on him, to trust him. Then, and only then, could he be certain they would accept the truths he offered. But at long last he was on the path—a path he had been denied back in Jerusalem. He was unsure where precisely Malosia was, but he knew now that the mists that had carried him here had been sent by God himself.
The streets were lit by dozens of lanterns and torches, their tiny plumes of smoke vanishing swiftly into the dark night sky. By the time the procession reached the church, it was too large even to fit inside. Fitting, then, that Father Marten awaited them not beyond its doors, but standing upon the steps, a candelabra clutched in one hand.
"Are you quite happy now, Father Lambrecht?" he called out in a voice that cut through the clamor and commotion with the force of a headsman's axe. Silence spread through the crowd in ripples, until only the occasional cough, the crackling of the lights, and the ever-present winter winds broke the night air.
Lambrecht extended his arms before him, palms up, in a gesture of magnanimity. "I, Father Marten? It is not I, but every man, woman, and child of Firalene Down who should be happy. This night has seen the end of your troubles, and the capture of the witch responsible for your so-called haunting!" He lowered his left arm and crossed his right over his breast. "I pray that some day you can forgive yourself for the harm you caused—inadvertently, I know—by your failure to see the true cause of your congregation's suffering." He bit back a smile at the grumbling behind him, as various members of the throng realized that their beloved priest had indeed led them astray.
But Marten was not to be cowed so easily. "I need forgive myself nothing, Lambrecht! Even were I mistaken, it was a mistake made as I tried to do what was best for my friends, for my flock. I did nothing for my own gratification or glorification! I think you cannot say the same."
God damn the man! Could he not see that Lambrecht was the necessary future of this town? Here he had tried to allow the priest to save face, to pass off his inaction as honest error, and Marten had spat it back in his face! So be it.
"Father Marten," Lambrecht said, his voice calm but carrying, "it was not I who deliberately lied to these good people. Yes," he replied to the mutters and denials from behind, "it is true! Marten admitted it to me in his own words! He knew it was no ghost that plagued you! He feared the presence of Inquisitors more than the presence of a true witch!
"Perhaps," he exclaimed, as though the thought had just occurred, "he feared the loss of his authority. After all, without Reeve Jesmond, who would functionally stand in charge of Firalene Down, if not Father Marten?"
He could feel the anger of the crowd growing behind him, hot and violent. It warmed him as thoroughly as any fire, building, building….
"It's true." Even Lambrecht was startled at that, and the admission took the edge off the crowd's rage. "I did mislead you, my friends, and for that I most humbly apologize. I felt it was the safest option—not for me, but for all of you. I did not wish to see our town torn apart by suspicion and fear of one another.
"And unlike Father Lambrecht, I lacked my own witchcraft to wield against our enemies!"
Lambrecht felt the eyes of those nearest him turning in his direction, not yet angry, not yet accusing, but no longer so certain as they had been.
"My friends," Marten continued, "for how many years have we been together? You know me to be as faithful a man, as committed to God Most High and the Six Scions as anyone could ask. Whatever else you think of me, whatever doubts this night has cast upon my character, surely you know this much.
"If one man's faith alone were sufficient to battle the black magics, would I not have been the first to stand in your defense?"
"Perhaps you simply lacked the means to find the witch!" Lambrecht retorted. But he could feel the situation slipping from his grasp.
"And how did you do that, then, if not witchcraft?" Marten asked simply.
No! This would not do! He could salvage this!
"I used what tools I needed to," Lambrecht acknowledged, "not for personal gain, but to protect the people of this town! The people you should have protected! Does it matter the manner in which I did so, if every man here is the better and safer for it?"
"Every man, Father Lambrecht? Or simply those that are not inconvenient to you?"
Lambrecht scowled. What in God's name was the priest on about?
And then the door to the church swung slowly open, and a single figure emerged. He limped heavily, moving with the aid of a wooden crutch, and for good reason: even through the rags that wrapped his feet against the chill of the night air, it was clear that several of his toes were absent. The left side of his mouth hung down in a permanent scowl, regardless of the expression on his right, and the eye above stared off at an angle. He seemed, to Lambrecht, vaguely familiar, but he could not quite place….
"Tell me, Father Lambrecht, do your ‘manners' and ‘techniques' and ‘tools' include attempted murder?"
Oh, God… the shepherd!
With a shriek of frustrated rage, even as he felt his last hold on the people's sympathy fraying away, Lambrecht shoved the nearest man aside, clearing a tiny bit of space between himself and the crowd. The incantation of earlier in the night came unbidden to his lips, and he spit the words into the cold wind as fast as they appeared. Like a geyser, the fog burst from the earth around him; even as he chanted, Lambrecht could not help but feel that he was not summoning the mists so much as opening the way for them, granting them permission to act on his behalf. In the span of a single breath, the yard before the church was enveloped in a thick soup of white, muffling all sight, all sound, all light.
Thrashing blindly, angry fists closed where Lambrecht had been, but the renegade priest was there no longer. And though they searched for hours, both within the deepest mists and long after they had finally dispersed, the enraged townsfolk could find no sign of him.
Dawn was some time distant, with only the very first traces of gray marring the blackness of the eastern horizon. His entire body trembling with fury, Lambrecht crouched behind the heavy trunk of an ancient tree and listened to the sounds of the crowd dispersing in the distance.
How dare they! After all he had done for them, after he had shown them the way, to turn on him like he was some common criminal! Absolutely unacceptable!
It was all that thrice-damned Marten's fault. His cowardice had infected his entire congregation. Lambrecht had seen it, over and over, in many of the churches back home; he'd thought things different here in Malosia.
Well, so be it. Marten and the others who'd turned Firalene Down against him would pay for their sins, and in the process, they just might help smooth Lambrecht's path to others more likely to heed his wisdom.
He left the shelter of the tree, darted through shadows. Grass and soft earth gave under his stolen boots as he approached his destination. After a quick glance to ensure the road was empty, he sprinted across the open space, vaulted a low iron fence, and landed on all fours.
Here, here and nowhere else in Firalene Down, he would find what he required.
Crouching low, like some common graverobber, he darted past the first row of burial plots. These tombstones were old and worn, the earth overgrown, the graves too old for his purposes. Flitting from stone to stone, always keeping the markers between himself and the road, Lambrecht moved through the cemetery.
The ground sloped, forming a shallow hill at the center of the graveyard, and it was here he found what he sought. Even had the temporary wooden marker not been sufficient, the freshly turned earth would have alerted him to the presence of a recent burial.
Now the gibbous moon and the stars were not enough. Lambrecht struck flint to steel, lighting a single candle. Carefully he kept the tiny flame low, invisible to any early morning passersby below. It was barely sufficient, that feeble illumination, but it would have to do. He shoved the candle deep into the soft earth, letting it stand on its own, and removed once more the pages of the Grimoire. This afternoon, he might have proved reluctant to attempt an incantation of this complexity, of this darkness, but now his anger burned far hotter than his fear.
Weighing the pages down with stones, he dropped to his knees and began digging madly, like an animal.
In seconds he had turned up a beetle. Clutching the carapace, he turned the creature upside down and held it beneath his nose, so close the wriggling legs almost touched him. Deeply he inhaled, though it was no normal scent he hunted. Twice, three times…. No. No, this one would not do. Carelessly he tossed it aside, and proceeded to dig once more. More beetles, worms, a lone roach…. Every one he examined closely, sniffed of its essence; every one lacked the spiritual taint he sought.
It was only once he had dug down several inches that he found it: a large black beetle, its carapace faintly reflective and rainbow-hued in the dancing candlelight. Again the priest clasped it in two filthy fingers, held it to his broken nose, and inhaled deeply.
Yes. This one would work. This vermin had tasted of the corpse buried below, consumed a morsel of its flesh. And that was enough to serve.
Lambrecht winced inwardly at what was to come, but hesitated not one second. He placed the beetle between his teeth and crunched down hard, allowing the writhing limbs to tickle his palate, the creature's sticky innards to coat his tongue. With the fluids of the insect fresh in his mouth, he began the recitation.
At the first completion of the incantation, his mouth began to burn. Focusing through the pain, he started again.
A second time through and wisps of mist accumulated in the air before him, spinning in a slow spiral around the earthen mound.
A third, and the mist fell like autumn leaves, seeped into the soil, and was gone. Four times… five….
On the sixth recitation, the soil began to shift about as something shuddered and moved beneath it, something that should never again have seen the light of day. Lambrecht watched as the first dirt-covered, decomposing hand broke the surface of the earth, and he rejoiced.
The wind gusted over a road made hard and cold by the changing seasons. The staccato clatter of the horses' iron shoes reverberated in otherwise-silent air, for it was enough to frighten away the tiny beasts that might normally brave the trees beside the highway.
At the head of the column, riding proudly beneath the crimson-and-gold standard of the sixfold sun, Captain Wulfaer of the Empyrean Inquisition released his hold on the reins long enough to wrap his heavy cloak more tightly about him, shivering despite its warmth. He hated winter, hated it with an abiding passion that was probably inappropriate in an agent of the Church, but he was fairly certain that the Scions would forgive him his temerity. He, like his mother, was swarthy of skin and dark of hair, and far more comfortable even in the roasting heights of Malosia's vicious summers than he was when the north winds blew.
At the very least, he and his division could have remained holed up in the stockades at Avron, but no. Some priest had sent a desperate missive to Caercaelum about a witch in Firalene Down, no minor spell-worker, but a true dark sorcerer. There might even have been two of them; Wulfaer was not entirely clear on that point. Still, they'd be arriving soon enough, just a matter of an hour or so now. And he'd figure it out from….
Wulfaer's steed, bred for war and coached by the finest trainers in all Malosia, snorted suddenly, its breath steaming in the cold. It pranced side to side, not quite nervous enough to halt, but as uncomfortable as Wulfaer had ever seen it. It scented something—something that hung too low in the night air for its rider to detect.
With a raised fist, the captain ordered his column to halt. Instantly the beat of hooves and the jingle of harnesses ceased, replaced by the clinking of chain and the creak of leather gauntlets closing around hilts. With one hand resting on his own pommel, Wulfaer scanned the terrain.
The grasses along the road bent sharply in the winter breeze. The trees, largely bare save for those few spots where the reds and golds of autumn clung stubbornly, waved gently as though bidding the Inquisitors greetings—or perhaps farewell. The night was already growing dark, for the mountains, tooth-like, took great bites from the sun as it descended behind them.
It all looked normal enough. Even the relative silence was fairly typical, given the frightening presence of the Inquisitors and their mounts. For the life of him, Wulfaer could see nothing, sense nothing, that should have spooked his horse.
But neither had he risen through the ranks, first of the Church soldiers and then of the Inquisition, by acting rashly.
Another gesture, and the column moved ahead once more, but slowly, cautiously. Every man's eyes searched their surroundings for the slightest incongruity. Even the other horses, their riders' anxiety adding to their own, seemed subtly more alert, ready to leap ahead or aside at an instant's notice.
Gradually, they crested a small rise in the road, and Wulfaer yanked his mount to a halt. The beast whickered unhappily, as discomfited by what lay ahead as its master. Several of his men halted behind him, and Wulfaer heard a variety of oaths and prayers to the Scions in hushed and horrified voices.
Firalene Down, as with many of Malosia's trading cities and towns, had spawned semi-permanent camps within an hour's travel from the main gates. Within these "peddlers' parks," merchants of questionable quality hawked wares of dubious worth, but at prices far better than might be found within the towns themselves. Vendors sold greasy foods and bitter ales to travelers unwilling to wait another hour or more for refreshment. A few peddlers' parks outside the greatest cities even provided cheap lodging for those too tired to finish the journey, or unable to afford better.
The peddlers' park on the road to Firalene Down lacked such amenities, and a good thing it was.
It meant that fewer folks had been present to die.
The canvas tents and makeshift stalls lay abandoned. Scattered before them, and across the road, sprawled over a dozen corpses, limbs splayed loosely in grotesque postures achievable only by the dead. Even more disturbing, many of the bodies had already putrefied—some only slightly, some as though months had passed since the soul had moved on to a higher dwelling. Wulfaer knew not if this suggested plague, or witchery, or something else entirely, but he knew full well it was unnatural.
He could, however, give thanks unto God and Scions for this much, at least: the number of corpses could not begin to account for the entire population, vendors and passersby, of a peddlers' park. With luck and grace, most of the folk had fled from whatever catastrophe befell them, perhaps taking shelter within Firalene Down rather than staying behind to die.
The captain and his men dismounted and approached warily, swords drawn, axes hefted, arrows nocked. If whoever, or whatever, had attacked these poor souls yet lingered, the soldiers of the Empyrean Inquisition would see to it that it never harmed another.
"Witchcraft, sir! It must be."
Wulfaer rolled his eyes before turning about. Guillame, the division's Truth Seeker, had all the enthusiasm and zealotry of the born witch-hunter, and none of the practicality of the soldier. Wulfaer would have been happier, by far, without him, or any Truth Seeker, along. Better to leave the more unpleasant necessities of the Inquisition to the turnkeys at the various prisons. No need to carry it into the world with them.
Wulfaer's voice was a bestial hiss. "Shut up and get back in formation!"
The other scowled, and Wulfaer could already sense another formal complaint on the way when they returned to Avron. Fine, then. He had a few choice words for Guillame's superiors as well.
Broadsword in hand, he returned his attention to the first of the corpses obstructing the road. The flesh clung tightly to the bones, and much of the body's back, left visible by rents in the clothes, was discolored by various settling humors. Most telling of all was the clothing itself: this was no normal outfit, but a burial shroud! The corpse looked as though it had been dead for weeks because it had been. How in the Scions' names it got here….
With a groan of escaping air, dust-filled and foul with noxious gasses, the corpse rolled over. Fingers of bone, leathery flesh, and creaking tendons clamped viciously around Wulfaer's ankle, locking him in place, as the desiccated jaw gaped wide. The captain could not contain a bloodcurdling shriek of terror and agonized revulsion as rotted teeth bit into his flesh, leaking black and viscous fluids that burned the skin and corrupted the blood.
Wulfaer lashed out with a mindless kick, desperate to get the unnatural thing off of him. Its skull caved in like a ripe melon and tore free from his leg, leaving several teeth behind to fester. Even that seemed more inconvenience than injury, for the corpse rose unsteadily to its feet, pulling itself upright with an iron grip on Wulfaer's own cloak.
"For God's sake!" he screamed, his voice high and trembling, "lend me a hand here!" But there were none free to aid him, for every other dead body in and along the road had risen with the first. They walked or crawled or limped or shambled but however they moved, they converged as one upon the terrified column of soldiers. The air grew thick with the miasma of decay, and several of the living men with weaker stomachs fell to their knees and retched.
Still, for all their revulsion, all their fear of a level of black sorcery such as they had never known, these were soldiers of the Empyrean Inquisition, warriors for God and Scions. Even as they trembled, their hands clutched tight on weapons of war. Arrows burst through sodden flesh, fat with water and foul fumes, and steel blades spilled gobbets of black and clotting blood.
Wulfaer stared deep into shriveled eyes that leaked thick, yellowed tears. He was afraid, more afraid than he had ever been, but he knew now why he must be here, even in the midst of the cold and the wind. Here was where he was needed most. He began to sing at the top of his lungs, an ancient paean of praise to the Scions, even as he thrust his sword through the foul creature's chest, twisting viciously.
Bone cracked, organs tore, blood flew—and none of it so much as slowed the thing down. Fingers bent into foul talons slammed against Wulfaer's head, leaving scores in his helm. The paean died half sung, and the soldier's vision flashed white at the impact. He retreated a step, his blade weaving blindly through the air, as he blinked rapidly to clear his eyes.
His vision returned just in time to show him the thing's jaw gaping wide once more, lunging at his throat.
A desperate parry with his blade cleaved half the corpse's lower jaw from its face, and still it came at him—mutilated, mangled, inexorable. Wulfaer heard the screams of men falling behind him, and he could only pray their deaths came swiftly, that they could not feel the claws of bone invade their flesh, or dead teeth chewing upon their limbs.
He had retreated now to stand with the rest of his column, clustered back to back against the advance of the dead. Their horses had long since fled, their training overcome by a primal, instinctual aversion to what should not be.
And Wulfaer had just enough time for what he was certain would be his last thought upon this world. Dear Scions, let me not rise as one of these once I've fallen!
As though in answer, one of the tents beside the road shifted. A figure emerged, clad in simple wool coat and trousers. His face was bloodstained, his brown and gray hair plastered to his scalp. Wulfaer could not tell, at initial glance, if this was an injured man—perhaps a survivor of whatever had befallen this cursed place—or another of the walking dead.
The stranger stumbled toward the roadside, wiping the blood from his eyes—eyes that stared wide at the carnage before him. Slowly he raised his hands, made a strange gesture in the air before him—very much like the sixfold sun, but incomplete—and began to chant. It sounded like an Empyrean prayer, but it was none Wulfaer had ever heard.
And to the astonishment of all, the dead paused in their murderous efforts! They did not retreat, did not fall to the earth in resumption of their natural state, but for an instant, they froze, held in place by the power of the sacred words.
"You'd best hurry, Captain," the stranger hissed, face broken out in a sweat despite the biting cold. "I'm not certain how long I can hold them!"
Who and how could wait for a more opportune time, though they burned at Wulfaer like a rash that demanded scratching. Instead, through clenched teeth, "What would you have us do? They don't even feel our blades!"
A finger shaking violently, from fear or from the strain of concentration Wulfaer could not say, pointed sharply toward a copse of trees, some dozens of yards back from the roadway. "The dead do not rise without a witch to call them," the stranger rasped, before turning his voice once more to his chant.
With a swift gesture, Wulfaer commanded the five nearest soldiers to accompany him, leaving the others to hold back the dead men should they break free of the newcomer's sway. With blades held high, they charged across the grass and between the thick boughs. What they found was nearly as disturbing as the legion of the dead.
A pair of men pranced wildly about a small fire. Dreadful symbols were drawn around the flames in what looked like the viscous blood of long-dead corpses, and the scraps of kindling that survived suggested that it had been lit with a copy of the Septateuch itself! The clearing smelled of smoke and sweat.
But most grotesque of all were the dancers themselves, for their movements were stiff and unnatural, their mouths twisted into rictus grins, and they made no noise save an occasional manic giggle. One hobbled heavily, his feet showing signs of frostbite, his mouth and his left eye fallen limp from some head injury for which he wore heavy bandages. The other, in a blasphemous mockery of faith, wore the black and crimson cassock of an Empyrean priest!
The manic figures turned as one when the soldiers burst through the underbrush, their fists and nails raised to strike as mindlessly as the animate corpses had done. They giggled wildly as their attackers approached, they giggled as the soldier's weapons cleaved their flesh, they giggled as they died.
Wulfaer stalked across the clearing and furiously kicked at the fire, scattering the embers. He continued to scuff at the earth as it died, obliterating the foul symbols surrounding it.
He and his fellow soldiers heard the cheer from the roadside, and slowly they began to relax. They emerged from the wood to see every corpse lying where it had fallen, once more returned to the peace of a natural death.
Yet not all was right in the world. With a heavy heart, Wulfaer ordered several men to collect the bodies of the fallen soldiers, for proper Empyrean burial back home. He sent his fastest and most fit running down the road in search of the panicked horses.
Wulfaer himself approached the stranger, who sat slumped at the side of the road, struggling to catch his breath.
"My name is Captain Wulfaer," he said by way of introduction. "What might I call you?"
"Lambrecht. Father Lambrecht, if the titles of my homeland have any meaning here."
"You're a priest, then?"
The soldier nodded. "You saved my men, Father, and myself. For that, you have my gratitude, for whatever good that may do you. But you must also understand, you've raised a great many questions that require answers."
Lambrecht nodded. "My charm against the risen dead."
"It is not witchcraft as you understand it, Captain. I have studied the dark arts, not to employ them, but to counter them. My charm is a simple means of focusing the power of my own faith against the necromancies and sorceries used by the servants of demons."
"And I have every reason to want to believe that, Father Lambrecht. Certainly, if true, it would prove a valuable weapon in our cause." The captain shook his head. "But the authority to decide your fate is not mine. You have used strange magics before me, and I fear my duty allows for no leeway."
"You must take me to see your superiors, then, and let them decide if what I say is true."
Wulfaer nodded. "I will speak on your behalf, Father Lambrecht. Every man here will do the same. You saved our lives; I believe you are no witch."
Lambrecht smiled. "That is all I could ask. Very well, Captain Wulfaer. I am ready to go."
The men of the column turned about, several carrying the corpses of their friends over their shoulders. They would walk, at least until they managed to recover their horses. No time, now, for a visit to Firalene Down—though Wulfaer was fairly certain that their witch problem was over anyway. No, the opportunities offered by this Father Lambrecht were too vital. He must be brought before the Inquisition and the Church, and soon.
As they crested the rise once more, Lambrecht turned to look back, back at the corpses he had pulled from their eternal rest, back at the copse of trees that would be the only tomb for the men who had turned Firalene Down against him.
And he smiled a gentle smile, for he knew that their sacrifice would not prove in vain.
Next Week: Chapter Thirteen...
"M'lord, with the utmost respect, is it entirely necessary to keep him here?"
Under other circumstances, Captain Wulfaer would never have spoken thus to the man who strode two paces before and beside him. In fact, in all the years he had served, the entirety of his words to this man had amounted to little more than multiple repetitions of—and variations on—"Yes, my lord!"